Avoiding Chaos, Losing Serendipity?

September 2, 2011
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From earliest times, humans, as social animals, have continuously faced decisions about “who to let in”. Motivations for doing so are varied. Hierarchies of social, economic and political ranking, closed groups and cults, exclusivity, outcasts – all of these social artifacts are still present in all aspects of human societies, work, play, and so on. With the growth of the Internet and social venues, it’s now somewhat becoming: “who do I let in” and “what do I let in”.

For those who are active on the Internet, for business or personal reasons, there can be a constant drumming of feeling bombarded and overwhelmed: information overload, ‘big data’, content popping up everywhere, social data explosion, too much noise. From time to time, we each might run an internal monologue such as this:

If I let everything in will I go crazy? Should I start limiting information that I encounter – then: what and how to filter things out? Am I filtering out thoughts, opinions, information that I need to hear, even if they are uncomfortable? Am I filtering so much that I’m only hearing what I already accept and think? Who am I filtering out that I should be hearing? 

Alvin Toffler in “Future Shock” (1970) is usually credited for bringing the term “information overload” into everyday use. According to Toffler, people will experience future shock due to accelerated and ever-increasing proliferations and changes in technology, information, social interaction — which results in “shattering stress and disorientation”. Toffler equated information overload to “sensory overload” that impeded understanding and decision-making. Obviously we continue to use the phrase “information overload” in our current era of “all things Internet”: 

Commentators have coined a profusion of phrases to describe the anxiety and anomie caused by too much information: “data asphyxiation” (William van Winkle), “data smog” (David Shenk), “information fatigue syndrome” (David Lewis), “cognitive overload” (Eric Schmidt) and “time famine” (Leslie Perlow).

Johann Hari, a British journalist, notes that there is a good reason why “wired” means both “connected to the internet” and “high, frantic, unable to concentrate”. 

Signal to Noise – Or the Noise is the Signal?

Audio engineering terminology has achieved popularity with some who seek ways to “manage the cacophony” of information, conversations and content on the Internet in various venues. This term is used even more by solution vendors, services and consultants who want to “solve the problem of too much noise” for individuals and organizations: Finding the signal in the noise and fine-tuning the signal-to-noise ratio.

Signal-to-noise ratio (often abbreviated SNR or S/N) is a measure used in science and engineering that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. It is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power. A ratio higher than 1:1 indicates more signal than noise. While SNR is commonly quoted for electrical signals, it can be applied to any form of signal (such as isotope levels in an ice core or biochemical signaling between cells).

As an engineering concept, identifying a legitimate signal in the noise is pretty much a black and white event, a measurable result from a standardized formula. But this is not as easily accomplished when applying the same notion to the wide variety of information, content, conversations, forums on the internet and elsewhere. While there is popular use of these phrases, is there truly anything gained from using them?

While it sounds clever, applying an engineering construct to a collection of different types of information and data that have highly qualitative attributes can be a trap. Co-opting the engineering terminology makes many people think that there’s a way to quantitatively sort out what matters, forgetting that many qualitative and even fanciful factors can be equally important. One person’s bunch of noise is another’s treasure trove of signals – so even the concept of signal to noise is highly subjective when alluding to content and information. When it comes to qualitative content, conversations, information — the noise may be the signal.

The questions may now become:  How do I determine what is noise – or is that even useful? When does noise become what I need to hear? When does filtering out the noise become awareness-censorship and deprivation of the very diversity of ideas that I seek and need?

Filter and Unfiltering

With this very real and constant bombardment of information, content, conversations, and social connections, yes, using filtering, classifications, lists, personalized search, and other devices can frequently be useful. But too much filtering can also be harmful, stifling, empty. Any kind of filtering has impact (positive, negative) on controlling (limiting) the human connections that could make a huge difference in our daily endeavors – and particularly, on thinking in new ways, innovation and creativity. Rules, filters, selection – all fine, as long as it is understood what might be excluded, as well as included.

Venturing out on a Google search to look for the “two faces of filtering”, most of what turned up was “how-to” advice that was mainly about filtering. Very little turned up to enlighten me on how filtering impedes better understanding or the dangers of filtering out the unexpected. (The ultimate irony here is speculating how much Google was filtering/personalizing my search in the first place.)

With the large amount of “stuff” that is communicated on Twitter, lists and hashtags have become filtering devices that many use, with mixed results. Some find the right mix in their lists, sometimes a refuge; some realize that they are missing out on new conversations and connections because of their lists. Others dance a fine jig between their lists and the general tweetstream.

Some want Twitter to provide the barometer for determining what may be valid and valuable to Me, relative to particular individual perspectives and sets of interests:

I want Twitter to figure out how to present that stream in a way that adds value to my life. It’s about the visual display of information, sure, but it’s more than that. It requires some Really F*ing Hard Math, crossed with some Really Really Hard Semantic Search, mixed with more Super Ridiculous Difficult Math. Because we’re talking about some super big numbers here: 200 million tweets a day across hundreds of millions of accounts. And that’s growing bigger by the hour.

First, twitter “content” is not just information, or content pure and simple. It’s also social activity. So, multiple algorithms would be required to extract relevance from tweets.

It strikes me that these algorithms might fall into two broad categories: content relevance and social relevance. Content is relevant on twitter generically, as trending news and information, often cited, agreed with, and linked to.

But the Twitter firehose, fully open, is quite friendly to Serendipity – as well as to Chaos. Twitter, full on, epitomizes communication almost completely unfiltered. Most activities, information, knowledge, content, opinions are generally open to anyone. Twitter can facilitate meeting people you’d never otherwise meet. New ideas smack you in the face to make you uneasy in ways that call for reexamining your own thought processes and contentions, whether for work or personal life. Comforting birds-of-a-feather are also present to reassure ideas already held.

Connections and brainstorms spring up where impromptu conversations are usually open to all, with an almost stream-of-consciousness flow. Unexpected new relationships develop. When disparate worlds willingly collide, it can enable the emergence of new ideas, perspectives, unexpected slants on topics and problems. 

If you are participating in social venues like Twitter, consider this: let them kick you out of your comfort zone – expose your thoughts to the unwelcoming and find out other POVs – listen, think, process, learn, achieve something new. How else do new thoughts, creativity, innovation find life? How else do seemingly unrelated points take creative thinkers to new places? Colliding with seemingly disparate pieces of information, making unexpected connections, looking through the eyes of others. These acts may be ‘unfiltering’ – or a massively different kind of ‘filter’.

Ulrich Kraft, in “Unleashing Creativity”, writes about the processes that can lead to creative thinking and those that can inhibit:

Latent inhibition has a corollary: too much specialized knowledge can stand in the way of creative thinking. Experts in a field will often internalize “accepted” thought processes, so that they become automatic. Intellectual flexibility is lost. For example, a mathematician will very likely tackle a difficult problem in an analytical way common to her professional training. But if the problem resists solution by this method, she may well find herself at a mental dead end. She has to let go of the unsuitable approach.

 Creative revelations come to most people when their minds are involved in an unrelated activity. That is because the brain continues to work on a problem once it has been supplied with the necessary raw materials. Some psychologists call this mental fermentation or incubation. They surmise that associative connections between ideas and imagination that already exist in the mind become weaker and are transformed by new information.

This change of perspective allows for alternative insights and creates the preconditions for a fresh, and perhaps more creative, approach.

Context for the ‘Chaos’

In his “Servant of Chaos” blog, Gavin Heaton discusses the work of Steven Johnson:

Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” reminds us that innovation, invention – or what he calls “the slow hunch”require the time and space to collide with other ideas.

What if social networks reach a certain point and then begin to shrink? What if the noise to signal ratio becomes so large that we begin to partition ourselves and our interactions to those of “like mind”. Steven Johnson says “Chance favours the connected mind” – which I love. But what if those ideas swim around in ever shrinking ponds starved of oxygen by the blue-green algae of group think?

But now I feel we need to increasingly push ourselves outside of our internet comfort zones. We need to click those links randomly. We need to visit, search and read sites that are outside our narrow focused expertise. 

The “slow hunch” needs serendipity, to allow the opportunity for a particular “hunch” to collide with other hunches, other ideas, contradictory positions, radical thinking – whatever will serve to extend and grow the original germinating hunch into full-blown innovation that matters.

More from Steven Johnson:

Secondly we must diversify the inputs in our lives and institutions. This means surrounding ourselves (and filling our institutions) with individuals who have diverse sets of hobbies and interests, and fostering diverse social networks, where friends, peers and colleagues stretch a wide variety of vocations.

“By diversifying the inputs in your life, you create the possibilities for new connections to take root, and diverse multidisciplinary environments generate good ideas,” Johnson said. A virtuous circle is formed when such individuals converge, and where the coming together of intellectual and social diversity sparks creative and otherwise unconnected thoughts and perspectives

Johnson reminded the audience that innovation is not simply technology at work. It’s about openness. 

Stay Curious, My Friend

It’s important to remind ourselves to stay curious about the world around us, if we want to innovate, explore new ideas, be open to the unexpected in ways that could significantly change our lives and the work we do. The internet, including social venues, helps us to do that if we have the courage to tear down mental preconceptions (filters).

Try to indulge in the necessary lack of inhibition to allow creativity and innovation to emerge. It takes intellectual courage to think outside accepted principles and habitual perspectives such as “We’ve always done it that way,” or “My group wouldn’t want me to think that”. Try to retain a spirit of discovery, a childlike curiosity about the world. And question the ‘understandings’ that others consider obvious or de rigueur. Solve problems creatively, not “correctly”.

Surprisingly, distraction can be good – it can take you to fortuitous, unplanned places and people. For some, the Twitter firehose, the information overload, the cacophony of social conversations seems too fragmented to bear. But fragmentation of attention also takes the willing to exceptional experiences, to the missing pieces of a project or solution.  Adhering to too much filtering or sticking to familiar ‘expertise’ can lead to too much focus on one component, which can limit or block open and diverse thinking and experience, and inhibit innovation.

Related Links

A Smarter Edgier Collective: Business Technology Professionals on Twitter 

I have a confession to make: I am a Hybrid

Internal Disruption–No Longer Business As Usual

About the author: Julie Hunt is an accomplished software industry analyst, providing strategic market and competitive insights. Her 25+ years as a software professional range from the very technical side to customer-centric work in solutions consulting, sales and marketing.  Julie shares her takes on the software industry via her blog Highly Competitive and on Twitter: @juliebhunt   For more information: Julie Hunt Consulting – Strategic Product & Market Intelligence Services